Reaction Time: Naughty Dog's Evan Wells Reflects on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves


Posted December 28, 2009 - By Andrew Pfister

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Uncharted 2 Header

Evan Wells is co-president of Naughty Dog, and right now he's got to be feeling pretty good about life. His studio has been racking up awards for their stellar Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the follow-up to their PlayStation 3 debut Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. On the day that they received X-Play's award for 2009 Game of the Year, he made some extra time to talk with us about Uncharted 2's development cycle, including what they were (and weren't) happy with, how difficult it is to design a game's ending, the decision to include multiplayer, and the inherent coolness of trains.

G4:  In the first official meeting to discuss the sequel to Uncharted, what did you guys sit down and talk about? What decisions were made?

Evan Wells:  One of the first things we did was we generated a list of the touchstones of what we thought the Uncharted franchise was, and the things that we wanted to make sure to honor while we were trying to expand and grow and bring a new experience to the players. So we hit on the fact that we were an action/adventure game that was inspired by the pulp novels and TV shows and movies of the 20th century. That we wanted to maintain a sense of humor -- we didn't want it to get too dark. And that Drake was fallible and relatable, and because of the humanness to his character. So we made a big, long list of maybe 8 or 10 things that we wanted to make sure we didn't deviate from as we were trying to expand the game.

And then we started talking about exactly how we wanted to expand it. We wanted to deliver on a lot of things that we were hoping to be able to include in the first game, which was to create that feeling of playing a summer blockbuster movie by delivering those really over-the-top cinematic set pieces. We knew it was going to take a lot of technology to support that stuff that we weren't able to get developed for the first game. We quickly wanted to get to the point where we knew at least the part of the world we were in, and the explorer...I guess that was another one of the touchstones, is that we were always going to be following an explorer, and it was going to be some sort of historical mystery that was going to be unraveled. So we settled on Marco Polo and Asia because we didn't want to be pigeon-holed as "the jungle game," so we wanted to do something that was very different than the environments in the first game. And to do something different, just to change up the experience, we wanted to do a little bit of globe-trotting -- we didn't want to have the entire game play out in just the one environment, which most of the first game played out. Again, to create that contrast.

G4:  Is that how you picked Shambhala and the Cintimani Stone?

EW:  Yeah, we knew that we wanted to do snow and mountains and caves and places that were very different from the first game, and we wanted to attach ourselves to a historical figure that people would know from fourth-grade social studies, so Marco Polo was a quick answer, and so then we knew that we could go into Asia and the Himalayas. The mystery tied into Shambhala pretty quickly.

G4:  Was there anything else that you strongly considered, or was that it?

EW:  No, we kind of went right there. We didn't explore too much...there were some other ideas, but just fleeting in a brief brainstorm.

Nathan DrakeG4:  Does a good adventure need to be rooted in actual history? What does that lend to it?

EW:  I don't think so, I mean it's important for us...and I'm glad you brought that up because it's another one of our touchstones that we were telling a modern story, and that we wanted it to be different than more of what people traditionally associate with these pulp action-adventures with mummies and the Indiana Jones movies, which are more period pieces. We wanted to be able to tell that story in modern times, and continue to be pushing that level of realism and authenticity.

G4:  How do you think the game was received? Obviously you're getting a lot of critical acclaim, but were there any reviews or particular criticisms that struck a chord with you guys?

EW:  Well this might sound like we're blowing smoke up G4 and Adam's ass, but Adam's review was really meaningful to us, because it did tap into what we were trying to accomplish, really. You know, tap into that inner child that we all have of wanting to go on these adventures and sort of bring back those moments of when you first saw something like that on the movie screen, and that feeling of excitement and adventure that it pulled out of you. We wanted to create that in interactive form, and I think Adam's review mentioned that he had that same experience, and that was really flattering.

G4:  Oftentimes with a game like Uncharted, people say "It's too linear." Do you think that's a valid complaint when you're intentionally setting out to make an adventure that's usually linear by nature?

EW:  I don't think it's a valid complaint at all. It's like saying it's a negative that we're a 3rd-person game. I think 3rd-person/1st-person is as much of a choice as doing a linear vs. a sandbox game...it's another choice to be made, and I don't think any one game style is going to replace the other. That's the kind of game we wanted to make, and there are lots of other great examples of games that do exactly that. You got God of War, Modern Warfare...these are all linear experiences, and fantastic ones.

G4:  Not everything needs exploration...

EW:  No, to tell the narrative that we wanted to tell and to really script that sequence, you couldn't do it in a sandbox game. You'd have too much ability to slow the pace of the game down, and we really want to drag you through the experience. And if there's ever a time where Drake could say "Oh, I want to go to the pond and go fishing to earn some money to upgrade my armor," it would slow the pacing of the game down and really ruin the narrative.

G4:  I felt like that while searching for treasure. There's that compulsion there to search for it, but I'm going so quickly in the story and I don't want to change that pace...

EW:  That's interesting you bring that up. That's one of the things we've talked about, it's something that we could improve if we were to do another Uncharted. How hidden those treasures are could potentially slow the player down, and we wanted to maybe think of an idea maybe where you had some that were on the main path, and on the second playthrough we'd open up more hidden ones...things like that, so yeah that's absolutely a concern that we could address in the future.

Uncharted 2

G4:  Is the pacing of a game something that you can design on paper, or do you need functioning code and playtesting and iterations to figure out?

EW:  One of our philosophies at Naughty Dog is not to do too much planning on paper, because it quickly gets out of date, and you do learn so much more by actually building it and experiencing it than you can by hypothesis or speculation. But we still did plan out the narrative and made sure that the gameplay was well-integrated, and the pacing was definitely part of that. We wanted to make sure that when you were in combat that it reflected the point of the story that you were in, whether you were sneaking into something or you were running away from someone...all of that was thought out and planned in advance of actually implementing it.

G4:  Were there any reservations in the beginning about including stealth?

EW:  Yeah, that was a concern. We were concerned that it might ruin not only the pacing of the game, but potentially the style of character that we had created for this genre. But you know, we were confident enough to give it a try, and we wanted to make sure that we didn't slip into Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid style stealth, and we kept it very active and action-oriented, and always a choice. So that if you didn't care for it, you could go in guns blazing and not be penalized for it. However, through all of our playtesting, we found that everybody really, really liked it and utilized it effectively. We got over that initial concern as soon as we started to implement it and saw it in playtesting.

G4:  Is it possible to make an adventure game without guns?  If you think about Indiana Jones, very rarely would he use a gun, except in that famous scene...do you think that works in games?

EW:  Yeah, you could. We happen to make an adventure game that's also a shooter, but I fully believe you could make an adventure game without guns. You see the Prince of Persia game, The Sands of Time. I think that we wanted to tap into a more modern day version of an adventure, and I think that not only is it a modern day story, but trying to tap into modern day gamers, and we felt that shooting was something that we could really focus on and add to something to the adventure genre which maybe didn't have quite as much focus on it -- they might have had guns, but wasn't a full-fledged shooter.


G4:  One of the most important aspects in an adventure story is having that ability to suspend disbelief. Whether it's movies or games, and especially when supernatural and paranormal elements are introduced. What's the line between believable and unbelievable, and how does that illusion shatter?

EW:  Yeah, it's a tough question, and it's something we definitely struggled with over both of our games. We wanted to make sure that we delivered on that believability the best we could. I think it has a lot to do with the story you're setting up, it has a lot to do with the universe you're creating, and a lot to do with foreshadowing and preparing the player for those curve balls you're going to throw at them. So you really need to lay the groundwork early, and I think we did a better job of it in the second game than the first game. I think for a lot of players in the first Uncharted, when they got to that Nazi facility, they didn't see it coming. And it was because we didn't do enough of playing up the cursed nature of the treasure that he was going after. Had we planted those seeds earlier in the storyline, it wouldn't have felt so sudden.

Uncharted 2 Ice Cave

G4:  Can an environmental puzzle be too "gamey?" The ice caves, for example...those people really wouldn't have designed it to be so difficult to navigate, so it really sticks out that you're playing a game. Is there a disconnect there you have to be aware of?

EW:  Sure, we've talked about this before...there's the concept of the "uncanny valley" in animation and modeling for human characters. And we focused a lot on avoiding that, but I think there's a new "uncanny valley" in gameplay, even, as we're making our stories and our characters, narrative and environments so believable and authentic. So when you do all of the sudden have these video game notions thrown in there, it can stand out more than it would in a game that wasn't delivering so high on the believability scale in the other areas. And yeah, we definitely...certainly the ice cave can fall into that category, and even just the body count that Drake goes through.

G4:  How hard is it to design an ending for a game?

Uncharted 2 LazarevicEW:  Extremely hard, and something that we game after game strive to do better. Particularly the boss fights. In our game, actually, we're trying to move out of the concept of the traditional video game boss fight. Again, we try not to follow all the conventions and all the things we were just talking about with the "uncanny valley" nature of that, so we have these heightened experiences, these peak excitement moments where you fight a tank or a helicopter -- you can consider those the boss fights of Uncharted. But in the end, you really want to pay off with a face-to-face shootout with your antagonist, and those are the hardest encounters for us to design, because it's hard not to fall into the trap of just creating a bullet sponge and again breaking that sense of believability. So that is tricky, and we use the supernatural element of the storyline to explain why Lazarevic was taking so many bullets, but it's definitely something we have to be careful of. And the other side, not only trying to conquer the believability aspect of it, the other side of it we struggle with, it's something we design late in the game. It's one of the last things we put into the game and we're usually really crunched for time. Certainly I think it was noticeable in the first Uncharted that the final boss was a little bit lackluster, and I think we did a lot better with the sequel, and we'll definitely try to raise the bar for ourselves.

G4:  Do you think it hurts it that it's designed so late in the process?

EW:  Yes, it does, and that's one of the things that in whatever game we do next, we want to try to figure out a way where we can do it earlier and work on it maybe not as one of the last things we do, maybe in the middle of the game or something. The way we make games at Naughty Dog, we don't have the entire script written as we're starting production. We're figuring out the story as we go -- we have a rough idea of all the environments we want to visit, but we don't know necessarily all the beats of the story, so we'll have to do better about that and get that done earlier, so that we can design the boss fight and still have it flow correctly into the story.

G4:  So during the process, even if it's a small change to the story, can that throw off the whole plan?

EW:  That's kind of why we don't write it ahead of time, because we don't want to fall into that trap. If we have the entire script written and as we're making the game we realize "Oh wow, this level's not fun," or "This level's too long, we have to shorten it." But now there are all these plot points that are in there, and we can't remove them without completely having ripple effects all the way down the line. So that's why we only are writing the scenes as far in advance as we need to.

G4:  So it's easier and less messy to add something later...

EW:  Or make a change, yeah.

G4:  What's one thing that made it into the final game that you or the team weren't completely satisfied with?

EW:  That's a pretty easy one, because we got called out for it in some of our reviews...it was the museum. Not the whole museum, but people kind of lumped it all into the museum. I think it was primarily it was that second courtyard. When you got in there and there were all the guards around, and you had to follow Flynn through that area. We knew it wasn't 100% polished but we had to get it out there. We playtested it and knew there was going to be some hang-ups there, but we just didn't have the time to address it.

G4:  What did you get called out for? I remember getting through that without any major issues...

EW:  And that's the thing. If you listened to Flynn and saw which way he went, and you went to the right and went to the fountain...smooth sailing. But if for whatever reason you got distracted and you thought "Okay, I have to take all these guards out," or something, you could get really in a loop there where you're getting caught over and over again. And yeah, we apologize for that. [laughs]

G4:  What's the one thing about the game you're the most proud of?

EW:  I'm most proud, personally, of the accomplishment of the team, that they pulled it all together. It was the culmination of all of these really talented individuals' work that really became a perfect example of something that's greater than the sum of its parts. It was really a leap of faith for a lot of people, because you're making this game and everyone's kind of doing their own thing, and it's kind of coming together, but you really don't know what you've got until you're close to the end. So just from a production stand point, I'm really proud of what everyone pulled off together.

Uncharted 2

From a gameplay-specific point of view, I think it'd have to be the train, because that was something that when we started we said we wanted to create these set piece moments, and a train was sort of a classic experience in these stories. But we wanted to do it differently than most people had done trains before where the train is actually static, so all of your movesets and enemies and AI and everything works because you're traditionally are not playing on moving geometry -- you'll just move the background and that creates the feeling that you're on a train. But you can only go on a straight line. You can't go around turns and bends and up hills, and we wanted to really capture that feeling that you're on the roof of the train and you see it curling around the mountainside up ahead, or you're in one car and the car in front of you is oscillating back and forth, making you adjust your aim. We knew that it was going to be a huge technology effort, and we're going to have to rewrite all of our systems for the AI, for the hero, for the physics...everything was going to have to be revamped. It took a long time to get all of that working, and it was basically the very last level in the game we finished.

G4:  Are you satisfied with your decision to include multiplayer?

EW:  Extremely. It was met with a little bit of trepidation by our fans when we first announced it, because they were afraid it was going to take away from the single-player experience, but we stayed the course and we thought we had something pretty unique. Of course, there are a lot of online shooters out there, but not a lot of online shooters that have the extensive traversal moveset that Drake has, and to allow all the players to be able to climb and maneuver around the environment like Drake, I think, gives Uncharted a pretty unique flavor in the online multiplayer venue. Once people got over that initial concern and that they saw that we wre not compromising the quality of our single-player game, and they actually got to play the game in the beta and though "Wow, this really isn't an afterthought, they really thought this through and created a fully-fledged experience," they jumped on board. Now we've got hundreds of thousands of people playing every week, and it's just a really strong and supportive community.

G4:  What kind of feedback have you gotten so far, as far as maybe making changes to how it plays?

EW:  We just tried an experimental weekend recently where we made some adjustments to some of the damage and health and stuff like that, and we've polled on NaughtyDog.com and they liked the changes. The majority of the people...there are some people, of course, where every change is bad, and they may be some of the loudest voices on your forums and message boards, but the vast majority of the people really supported the changes. We added a brand new multiplayer map for free as DLC and we've got a bunch more maps in the works right now. They're at the office now, slaving away and getting those ready. We also added leaderboards and we're adding clan tags, and we've improved the load times from something like 50 seconds to something like 15...so we're constantly trying to add improvements and we're not just sort of "fire and forget." We're really trying to support the community, because anything that we keep developing for this is just technology we're going to have under our belts that we can use in the future.

Uncharted 2

G4:  Do you feel like you're creating expectations for all future Naughty Dog games to have multiplayer?

EW:  Yeah, I don't see that as a bad thing. I actually don't want to make a game that doesn't have some sort of online component, whether it's competitive multiplayer, Deathmatch-style. But I think that online is the very best way to create a community, beacuse now these people have an ongoing relationship. They are part of that relationship because they provide the feedback, and you can provide updates and you can keep working with them. Even if it's just through leaderboards or something like that...it's just great for people to be able to share that experience with other players and to have that direct line of communication to the developer. I think it's really important, so I think absolutely all of Naughty Dog's games going forward will have some sort of online component.

G4:  The online co-op was very well received, are you guys thinking about doing more of that? Gears of War 2 this past summer had a very short co-op addition that tied into the game's story, and then on the other end of the spectrum, Halo 3: ODST was a standalone thing, but it was also supplemental to the universe...are you looking at that as examples of future plans?

EW:  Yeah, I'm really happy that the co-op was a big of a success as it has been, it was something that for the first month or two when we started the project, we weren't sure that we were going to be able to do co-op because of the massive amounts of animation that our characters had, and we weren't sure that there was going to be a way to get it to work with the bandwidth limitations that you have to deal with when you're doing something online. The programmers came up with some clever ways of getting around that issue, and it became something that is almost as popular as our competitive side of things. When we look at the statistics and number of games being played, it's right up there. It's almost the same number of co-op games as competitive games. Now, it's a little misleading because there are ten players in a competitive game and only three players in a co-op game, so the number of players in each type of game is different, but the actual number of games is pretty close.

So for future DLC, could we add more co-op? Probably more in the arena-style type of gameplay, like our Survival and our Gold Rush modes. The objective-style co-op that we have where we have those little narrative moments...it's something that we are considering and we'd really like to do, but it's a much, much bigger investment of time because we have to do a lot of motion capture with the actors and record a lot of voices. So we would absolutely want make sure that we talk to our community and make sure there was the proper demand for it.

G4:  How comfortable are you now developing on the PS3? Are you starting to get an itch for new hardware?

Uncharted 2 ChloeEW:  Absolutely the opposite. We're pretty comfortable with the PS3, and we made a very big advancement between the first game and the second game, we're really tapping into the Cell processor, but there's more there. The first game, it was idle about 70% of the time, which we rectified for the sequel, and now it's at least busy 100% of the time, but it's still not fully-optimized code. I mean, in order to get to that 100%, it was more about making sure the pipeline was filled, and we weren't running into one of the processors becoming idle because there wasn't a job ready for it. But now we have to go into all of those routines and optimize them so we that can get even more done using that Cell processor. It really feels that sometimes it's this bottomless pit of processing power, you find the right kind of job for it and it can just churn through those things so fast, which really helps with a lot of our rendering and post-processing effects.

So yes, we're getting comfortable. No, we're not itching for new hardware. I would love to keep working on the PlayStation [3] for 5 or 6 more years...I think there's still a lot to get out of it. We're not really feeling limited by the hardware, it's more about the hours of the day and how quickly we want to get the next game out.

G4:  Looking at Uncharted 2, it's hard to imagine what more you guys could do with that...the cycle is getting longer and longer, and we don't really need something new...

EW:  Yeah, the consumers definitely are winners if the cycle is longer because they don't have to shell out $300 to...well, PS3...$600 for a new piece of hardware. But the developers win, because they get to continue to leverage all of their investment with that current generation. They don't have to go in there and start learning the new hardware and rebuilding all of their tools and rendering pipleines to support it. I only see software sales getting stronger over the next couple of years, so I hope the hardware manufacturers don't feel the pressure to put out some new systems any time soon.

G4:  Are you guys paying attention to sales numbers?

EW:  Yeah, absolutely. Obviously we're creators and artists, but it's also a business and Sony puts a lot of support behind us and gives us generous budgets to make the kind of game that we want to make. They definitely want to see that we're holding up our end and delivering on a game that's profitable and actually helping them move the hardware.

G4:  Was there pressure to be, once again, a "system seller" for PS3?

EW:  Well, we felt the pressure to make a game that was a game that every PlayStation owner wants to own. We weren't necessarily getting the mandate from anybody at Sony that "Yeah, we need a system seller." In fact, we were probably going to them and saying "No, we're going to do it. We're going to make the game that sells your system." So if there was pressure, it was internal.

It was more to just to try to push the industry forward, really, more than trying to sell hardware. We wanted to raise the bar for storytelling, and we feel that video games have kind of gotten slapped with the notion that movies are much better form for telling stories, and video games should do what they do best and be interactive, but I really feel that we can do both, and we just wanted to push that state of the art forward.

G4:  How has the studio changed or evolved during the process, as far as structure and workflow goes? What's the most important thing you learned about yourselves as a company?

EW:  That we're all a bunch of workaholic perfectionists. [laughs] We really busted our asses on this one, and everybody at Naughty Dog poured their heart and soul into the game. It was a pretty hard crunch, we bit off a lot more than we could chew with adding the multiplayer, with expanding the single-player the way we did, co-op, an hour and a half of cinematics...I can't even count how many animations if you count the in-game cinematics. It was a huge, huge game, but the team rose to the challenge. It was never a company mandate, neither [co-president] Christophe [Balestra] nor myself never said "You must come in on the weekends, you must work overtime..." Everyone just did it on their own because they believed in the game. They were enthusiastic about making sure that it was the best game that Naughty Dog ever made, and the best game that they ever worked on, so everyone just buckled down and did it.

Actually now, looking back, I think Christophe and myself are going to have to do a better job of restricting that workaholic and perfectionist nature to make sure that people don't burn themselves out. Because the last thing we want to do is lose our talented employees. Fortunately, I don't think this one game was enough to burn them out, and the reception has sort of healed the wounds. But it's something that we're going to have to be careful of. Yes, we want to make great games...yes, we want to leave our mark on the industry, but we should do it within the parameters that would still allow us to keep our wives.

G4:  You're still human beings...

EW:  Yeah, marriages need to stay intact.

G4:  Does that translate into intentionally longer development time?

EW:  That is one of the things that we are considering. But we do feel like we're int his two year rhythm. We could maybe stretch that to three, I don't know...that's still up in the air right now. One of the things Naughty Dog is, we're very fluid with our development. We don't do a lot of planning, we don't have producers who are tracking people's schedules. The leads and the designers, and Christophe and myself, kind of keep an eye on the overview and we've got a good idea, we've been doing it long enough that we can guesstimate how long something's giong to take, and scale back where we think we need to. We don't want to change that fluidity, we don't want to become more structured or rigid, or have somebody with a clipboard saying "this is going to be done in two days." So what we want to try to do is adjust the parameters about the number of days in a row you can work without taking a break...before we had a minimum number of hours, so now we might need a maximum. [laughs]

Uncharted 2

G4:  Any plans or thoughts of expansion, making a bigger Naughty Dog?

EW:  We have been growing steadily over the course of Uncharted 2, and we're always looking for new talent. We never stop recruiting, we're over 100 people now, and I think once you get to that level, you do need to keep your feelers out there for new talent. Simply because at that level, you're going to have people who have family issues that might cause them to move, so yeah we're definitely still expanding and looking for new people.

G4:  Have you been thinking about motion control? Do you think it's going to resonate with the PlayStation audience? Is it right for the genre that you're interested in?

EW:  I think right for the genre that we're in? We really don't have any interest in using the motion control to do a third-person action game. If we were going to make a motion controller game, I think we'd want to tackle it from the bottom up and make sure that we were designing the game around the motion control, the way the best Wii games are designed. I'm not a Wii hater at all, in fact, it's probably one of my most played consoles in the house. I have a 3-year old son which might account for some of that [laughs], but I think Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort are some of the best experiences of this generation, honestly. They're immensely playable and competitive, and just great fun with a group of people in the same room. Yeah, I think the PlayStation audience is totally for it, in fact, I bet you there are lot of closet Wii owners in the PlayStation community. If there is some really good software for that motion controller, I think it can be a big, big success.

Reaction Time: Naughty Dog's Evan Wells Reflects on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves


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